By James M. Dorsey
Barely a month after securing the right to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Qatar is flexing its muscle as a major soccer player, rejecting calls by FIFA president Sepp Blatter and other executive members to move the tournament to the winter months and co-host it with other Gulf states. Accepting Blatter’s proposals would undermine the oil-rich emirate, who is also seeking to capitalize on its new-found status.
The battle within FIFA over the modalities of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is being waged against the backdrop of a looming Qatari challenge to Blatter’s imperious rule of the world soccer body—a power struggle within FIFA that until now was fought by proxy in the Asian Football and Qatar deliberations. Idiosyncratic in its positioning of itself as a key political, diplomatic and economic regional and global player, Qatar is not about to allow anything or anyone distract from its success.
Underlining Qatar’s positioning, Citibank Middle East chief economist Farouk Soussa concluded in a recent analysis of the economics of the Gulf state’s FIFA bid that from a "PR perspective there can be no doubt that the World Cup will heap immense benefits on the region and the swell of pride is justified.” Soussa described Qatar as “the chosen face of the new Arab world: rich, bold, futuristic."
That is not a position Qatar would want to share by agreeing to suggestions by Blatter and the UEFA president Michel Platini that it co-host the Cup with other Gulf states eager to share in the glory. Nor is Qatar about to have innovation, one of the main legs of its bid, ripped away by Blatter and Franz Beckenbauer’s suggestion to hold the Qatari games in the winter to evade the emirate’s extreme summer heat. Qatar prides itself on projected stadia and training facilities that have a green, carbon-zero cooling technology that will keep them at about 28 degrees Celsius despite average outside temperatures in the mid-40s.
Blatter’s efforts to water down Qatar’s victory are fuelling suspicions that the FIFA president was not one of the executive committee members who voted in favour of the emirate in the Dec. 2 poll where the Gulf state was awarded the 2022 tournament.
Qatari suspicions of Blatter’s intentions are fuelled by the FIFA president’s adversarial relationship with the Qatari president of the Asian Football Confederation, Mohammed Bin Hammam. Bin Hammam is widely believed to be eyeing the FIFA presidency and has left open the possibility that he may challenge Blatter in this year’s May election, for which Blatter is already on the campaign trail.
Blatter won a round against Bin Hammam earlier this month when his candidate Jordanian Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein defeated Chung Mong-joon in an election for the post of FIFA vice president. In doing so, Prince Ali eliminated the South Korean as a potential challenger for the FIFA presidency. "What I think—actually not what I think, what I can announce—the 25 votes that went to Prince Ali will go for President Blatter when he stands for re-election," said Sheikh Ahmed Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, the Kuwaiti president of the Olympic Council of Asia.
It’s hardly a surprise that Bin Hammam was quick to respond by flatly rejecting any changes to the terms of Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup. For now Bin Hammam and Qatar appear to have the upper hand: FIFA cannot act on Blatter’s suggestions without a formal Qatari request. In rejecting Blatter’s proposals, Bin Hammam put Blatter, who only 24 hours earlier in an interview with CNN assessed the chance of holding the Qatar games in winter at 50 percent, on the spot. FIFA’s “executive committee should lie in the bed it made and live with the consequences of its vote—or step down if it now feels that a summer World Cup in Qatar is not a very good idea,” said veteran AP commentator John Leicester in a recent column.
At stake in this power struggle is more than the egos of two powerful men. The outcome of the battle could involve a shuffle in power and a weakening of Europe’s overwhelming grip on the game.
In rejecting Blatter’s proposals for holding the Qatar tournament and allowing other Gulf states to co-host it, Bin Hammam positioned himself as the New World candidate willing to introduce the reforms of FIFA many people are clamouring for. “We should modernise ourselves in such a way as to reflect the real stakeholders—member associations, leagues, clubs, players, coaches...The structure is not helpful or useful for our world,” Bin Hammam says.
Ironically, Bin Hammam’s interests appear to be coinciding with those of some of the very people whose power he is challenging. England Football Association general secretary Alex Horne described switching the Qatar tournament from June/July to January as a "logistical nightmare" because it would require a winter break in the Premier League.
"I know that football in Europe has quite a history, it is quite a business involving a lot of financial, media, marketing—a lot of things. It is unfair to these people that we talk about changing the calendar or the time without their full consultation and their full approval and their full agreement—I'm actually not happy to see that happening without the real stakeholders' part of this discussion,” Bin Hammam says.